How did CEMS manage to sustain themselves during the first months of the pandemic when economic acidities had ground to a halt?
Everything in Bangladesh began shutting down between 17 March 2020 – 26 March 2020. However, we got to know of the outbreak in December of 2019, due to which our exhibition – ‘17th DIFS Winter Show’ – which was scheduled for January 2020 had to be cancelled. 70% of our exhibitors were from China since we conducted this exhibition in collaboration with CCPIT-Textile. In March we had our Motor Show but following close monitoring of the situation, we shut down the office on 15 March 2020. After observing everything in April, we realized the pandemic is here to stay for a while. This led us to making the decision to lay off 40% of our workforce. Even though the office was bare of staff, we continued to work in a systematic way to uphold and mitigate our financial duties. We opened our office on 1 June 2020.
CEMS has some sister concerns which we started working on diligently since our exhibition area was closed. Our revenue didn’t increase but we were able to strengthen the two concerns and bring structure to them. Our IT and Consulting firm helped us and our employees to remain motivated and this boosted mental health. Even the 40% we had to let go of, we continued to maintain an amicable and friendly relationship with them and provided some financial help to them to ensure that they could meet their basic needs.
How will the on-going pandemic affect the way exhibitions are carried out? What are the challenges of resuming activities in the pandemic world?
The on-going pandemic is better than the initial stages, however, it is still not stable enough for physical exhibitions. We believe things will go back to normal soon – given that the vaccine for the virus is being administered worldwide. The safety of the visitors and the participants is most important and until the government permits the exhibition industry to begin organizing events there is little chance of physical exhibitions taking place. Thus – there are definitely multiple challenges of resuming activities in the pandemic world. Nonetheless, I think in the long run the industry will only flourish. The pandemic situation has generated a global surge of virtual online activities both official and casual. Classes, sessions, meetings and even some exhibitions have already been using virtual platforms such as Zoom to run operations. In my perspective the world and people in it have evolved into a more digital friendly lifestyle giving exhibition organizers the opportunity to add more exciting features in their shows.
With digital proliferation skyrocketing, how is this industry planning to facilitate a smooth transition between digital engagement and physical exhibitions?
We conducted a virtual exhibition in November 2020 with one of Chinese Councils. We had to rent out a venue to hold our virtual exhibition. It was successful, but we learned that we needed to be in control of our venue and platform. This led us to building our very own 3D platform, which goes through continuous rectification daily. We are going to be conducting a 3D Virtual Expo on Intl’ Yarn & Fabric Manufacturing & Suppliers. When we broached the idea of a virtual exhibition to the international market we were met with hesitation and doubts because there were issues in connecting suppliers and buyers, exhibitors and visitors. Since virtual exhibitions are a new endeavor, some problems were bound to take place. We observed the setbacks and using our finding we tailored our 3D exhibition platform. Through our platform, exhibitors can see who is looking to visit or access their stall. Exhibitors and visitors can chat with each other, have a video call and have a 360 view of the stall.
The technology for our 3D virtual platform was built by one of our sister concerns. With the onset of the pandemic, many such platforms started popping up. We saw what was being released in the market, found the kinks and took 3 months to develop the platform. We intend on generating revenue from the platform by renting it out. This platform is necessary for a country like Bangladesh and for the field.
COVID-19 has taught us that companies that make a vast amount of money but their numbers are small and whose products are not possible to transport manually have an opportunity in our 3D virtual platform. This is a promising platform and with government support we can reap the benefits of it. We are collaborating with The World Bank and the Commerce Ministry have urged to promote four sectors – leather, leather footwear, plastic and light engineering and to increase their exports. It is a two-year project.
It’s not just that we are exhibition organizers, we love the work we do. The work we have been doing and the experience we have garnered has allowed people to have faith. When the government entered the picture, it allowed the sector to take on an institutional shape. I am grateful to the country because the government has recognized the value of the knowledge in the private sector. This private sector-government collaboration is a positive sign the private sector is able to share their experience and knowledge, and in turn the government takes it into consideration and devises guidelines to move forward.
What were the lessons learned in overcoming the challenges of the lockdown?
Almost 90% of our working staff contracted the virus. Instead of resorting to panic, we practiced caution and made sure the necessary treatment was taken to ensure morale remains intact. This allowed us to feel brave, because at one point we realized that this is unavoidable. As we moved further into 2020, by October we had overcome infection and had developed minimum antibodies. This was a big morale boost for us and it translated into us working diligently on our other projects and we were successful.
In the last one and half months, a lot of exhibitions started taking place. We do exhibitions through government tenders or in collaboration with associations. We did an event with the ICT Ministry called the Blockchain Olympiad, we did one with the Election Commission, we did one with IDRA. The move towards stability is taking place.
I am also a Director of India-Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and the China-Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce. The Indian Commerce Secretary paid a visit recently to Dhaka. I attended a meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel without the hassle of social distancing or masks. When the Indian Commerce Secretary is visiting, sitting closely and partaking in a meeting, the vibe that things are going back to normal is palpable.
COVID-19 brought with it some key lessons. As a country, as an institution there needs to be an understanding that the path doesn’t keep going in a straight line. Our economy is heavily dependent on RMG, and we need to think about growing multiple industries and sectors. Every institution, person and country needs to have a two-year preparedness plan. CEMS had this preparedness, which is why, even without revenue we have been able to come this far with the company. The pandemic has made us nimble, adaptable and foresighted.
How do you envision the exhibition industry to evolve? Where do you see it going in the coming years?
The exhibition industry runs in trillions of dollars. When we have an exhibition here in Bangladesh, all the hotels are booked. Not a single room remains empty. The exhibition industry helps the tourism industry. It also simultaneously helps out sectors like restaurants and RMG. When you talk about exhibitions, it is the only face-to-face platform where you can go and see different products and you can analyze them, talk to suppliers. Not everything can be expressed through a media coverage, TV ad, exhibitions allow you to firsthand experience the product and service a supplier provides. B2B exhibitions are an incredible boon for the RMG industry, power industry, medical industry. Exhibitions will never die; they will always remain and get stronger as time goes on. This is the only medium which creates a platform and brings together suppliers and buyers.
Many companies that are in the Export Processing Zones that have their own companies and made investments in Bangladesh entered the country through our exhibitions. They came and researched the market, spoke to the agencies, and decided they will invest in Bangladesh through the BOI. These companies have set up their own manufacturing units here. The exhibition industry is not just a medium of networking, it’s a medium where international companies go to a country, do their R&D and decide whether they will invest in that country. CEMS promotes trade development through its B2B Exhibition platforms, so exhibitions will never die out. They will always remain forever, because face-to-face interaction will never die.